- Kidney disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in cats — Older cats are more susceptible to these illnesses, but they may impact cats at any life stage. Acute kidney disease may be reversible, so it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as your cat exhibits symptoms.
- Your vet may help advise on how much time is left — If your cat is dying, your vet can often help give an idea of how long your cat might continue to live, or if euthanasia is advisable, depending on quality of life.
- It’s up to you to decide whether to let your cat stay at home or let them go —While there are different opinions on whether or not you should euthanize your cat, it’s ultimately up to you and will depend on your pet’s condition. Learning what to expect and how to prepare can help you make the most appropriate decision for your situation.
When cats experience pain, they often retreat and try to hide their symptoms. It can be hard to recognize a sick cat until they begin displaying other signs, such as loss of appetite or a foul odor. You should take your cat to the vet as soon as you can if they start acting unusually. The sooner you seek proper medical attention, the more likely that your pet will recover. If you do receive the worst news, there are some things you can do to comfort your cat during their last stages of life.
Signs your cat is dying
Among household pets, domestic cats live a relatively long time, with an average 12-18 year life expectancy. Many factors contribute to this actual number, including genetics. While many pass naturally from old age, there are many causes of death in cats, including common medical conditions. You should familiarize yourself with the signs of a dying cat so that you know what to look out for.
Sometimes these causes of death can be prevented with early intervention, but it’s important to realize that death comes to all of us eventually. If there is no treatment available for your cat, it isn’t because you were an inadequate cat parent. Instead, you should recognize that you’ve shielded them from all preventable causes of death, and now you can both rest easy knowing you gave them the best life they possibly could have.
Some have said that unless cats die from something else first, most felines will eventually die from kidney failure. While it’s not yet known exactly why renal failure is so prevalent, it’s important to distinguish between the two types in cats — chronic and acute.
Chronic kidney disease in cats usually occurs over many years, and is a common cause of death in senior pets. On the other hand, acute kidney failure usually results from eating something toxic or experiencing a urinary blockage. It can happen to any cat at any life stage, and can sometimes be reversed, especially if caught early. Symptoms of kidney failure include:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased urination, especially if outside of the litter box
- Unpleasant odor
- Lethargy or depression
- Weight loss
👉Always take your cat to the vet if they display any of these symptoms. Urinary tract disease (UTD) closely mimics kidney failure, but is easily curable with treatment.
While nearly half of all dogs die from cancer, cats seem to be less susceptible. Even so, cancer is a leading cause of death in cats , claiming as many as 32% of our feline friends. Some types of cancer are curable, but the most common type, lymphoma, is almost always terminal. Lymphoma often targets the kidney, liver, spleen, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
“We don’t think of feline lymphoma as a curable condition,” says Margaret McEntee, DVM, a professor of oncology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Even with chemotherapy, survival time will typically be on the order of six months or so, although some cats may survive for a year or more.”
Since your cat may live for over a year past their initial diagnosis, it’s important to thoroughly discuss all factors of your cat’s health, comfort, and end of life pet care with your vet. Depending on what stage they’re at, there may be a way to relieve your cat’s pain while prolonging their life for a while longer.
Some signs of the final stages of lymphoma include:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Listless eyes
Eventually, if no other illnesses come for your cat, their body may slowly wind down due to old age. This is usually a gradual decline as they experience lower energy levels and possible onset of common senior problems like arthritis. As your senior cat becomes more lethargic, you should keep an eye on them for any sudden changes in normal behavior, such as their eating habits. Geriatric cats may live for a couple years in a state of decline, but you’ll likely know the end is near if they start displaying these symptoms:
- Refusing food for a day or longer
- No longer drinking water
- Foul odor
- Suddenly becoming increasingly lethargic, such as refusing to stand
Providing comfort for your cat at the end
Any time your cat displays signs of terminal illness, you should take them to the vet as soon as possible for an evaluation. The vet will be able to tell you what’s ailing your cat, as well as an approximate prognosis and/or treatment options. Some causes of death can be prevented, which gives you precious more time with your feline friend. That’s why it’s important to take them in as soon as you can.
Even if the prognosis is not good, there are a few things you can do to make your cat’s final days as soothing as possible.
- Make sure they’re sleeping well. If your cat is in pain, they might have trouble sleeping. You can do your part in alleviating their discomfort by investing in a cozy cat bed that will support their joints and keep them warm.
- Ask your vet about medication to manage their pain. Your vet will likely prescribe medication to ease your pet’s pain and make them comfortable for as long as possible. If you have pet insurance, your policy might cover these medications, which can be especially if your vet believes they will continue to have a decent quality of life for longer with medication.
- Provide them with their favorite treats and toys. While we may have counted calories in their younger years, now is the time to sneak in all the extra treats.
- Spend as much time with your cat as possible, but give them their space if they need it. Some cats take comfort in snuggling close to your side, while others may prefer the solace of a quiet room alone. While you should try to be there for them as much as possible, try not to impose if your cat is giving you the signal to stay away.
👉 You should never give over-the-counter medication to your pet without asking your vet first. Certain medications are extremely dangerous for cats.
How to care for your cat at the end of their life
While you don’t want to think about your cat’s last day with you, it’s important to become as familiar as you can with their condition and prognosis so you can give them the most loving treatment. Your vet may advise you to euthanize your pet if they’re clearly uncomfortable, such as having difficulty breathing, experiencing frequent seizures, or have stopped eating. You might choose palliative care instead, especially if they’re dying from a slowly progressive illness as opposed to an acute sickness or injury.
Why euthanasia might be right for your cat
Pet euthanasia is a common option for owners in the United States. The process is fast and relatively painless, usually taking about 10-20 seconds from the time of injection until their final breath. Sometimes veterinarians administer a mild sedative directly before the procedure to calm your cat. A barbiturate such as pentobarbital is usually used as the euthanasia agent. Barbiturates are frequently used in surgery as anesthesia, but a much higher dose is used in euthanasia. This overdose quickly stops your cat’s heart and respiratory functions. By the time your cat’s heart stops, they’re unconscious and unable to feel any pain. As their muscles relax, they may urinate or defecate at the time of death, and their eyes may stay open, but this doesn’t always happen.
The decision is up to you as the owner whether to be in the room or not. Some pet parents want to be there to comfort their cat as they pass away, while others feel that their distress would upset their cat’s final moments. There isn’t a right or wrong choice. Since it happens so quickly, you should mostly consider how you are likely to feel in the days to follow. Will you feel guilty if you’re not there to witness your cat’s passing? Or, do you think experiencing their death will cause you unnecessary anxiety and pain?
Why you might keep your cat at home
It can be emotionally devastating to watch your cat experience pain, which is often why many pet parents choose euthanasia. However, allowing them to die at home in their own time can also be a cathartic experience for you and your cat. Some cats who appeared listless at home may suddenly panic at the vet’s office, which can be very upsetting for the cat and the pet parent, who then may wonder if their cat was ready to die. If you decide to euthanize your pet but don’t want the potential discomfort associated with the vet’s office, you might ask if your vet will do a house call. Home euthanasia services such as Lap of Love are also becoming more available if your vet isn’t able to come.
If you decide to keep your cat at home with you, prepare yourself with having to acknowledge the dying process. At some point, your cat will refuse to eat any more food. Their body won’t need it anymore as it’s quietly shutting down. They’ll lose their ability to stand and may have glazed, slowly blinking eyes. The actual symptoms your cat may experience varies depending on their cause of death.
If your cat passes away naturally at home, there’s no doubt that they are ready. You can even bring them to a quiet place such as their favorite windowsill to draw their very last breath, instead of in a cold clinic. However, dying at home is more likely to be a peaceful experience if your cat is slowly dwindling away from old age, as opposed to acute pain.
Burial options for cats
You can choose whether you’d prefer to have your cat’s body cremated individually, communally with your other cats, or buried in the ground. Check with your local ordinances if you decide on a backyard burial, or ask your vet if they know of a local pet cemetery.
In addition to placing a headstone or marker, you might want to plant or place flowers on the gravesite. Alternatively, in lieu of flowers, you might plant catnip for local outdoor felines to enjoy in their honor. There are also other touching ways to memorialize your pet after they’ve passed on.
People process grief in different ways. Some cat parents find it easier to adopt another cat soon after their friend passes, while others may want to wait a while to let the wound heal. While you can never replace the cat you’ve lost, adopting another animal can give another feline a loving home, and may help you process your emotions with the hope of new life. This route isn’t for everyone however, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, so make the best choice for you.
How long does it take for a cat to die
Depending on your cat’s condition and stage of life, death can come very quickly or may take several months. Cats die within three days of their last sip of water, or within a week of their last meal. If they’ve stopped eating and drinking, you know their time with you is almost at an end.
It’s important to realize that a lot of animals–and humans–may experience a small rebound of energy shortly before they die. It’s not uncommon to hear of a cat or dog seemingly doing much better, right before they take a turn for the worse. Sometimes this can be very upsetting in retrospect because your pet may have appeared to be getting better, such as eating for the first time in days or seeming more energetic. Think of these moments not as victories lost, but as a precious last gift of time with you and your pet.
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Frequently asked questions
How do cats act when they’re dying?
Cats often view pain as vulnerability. They usually try to conceal pain by hiding away, but may also become extra snuggly if you have a close bond. The exact symptoms differ depending on your cat’s illness, but you’ll know the end is near if they suddenly stop eating or drinking for longer than 24 hours. If you notice unusual changes in your cat’s behavior, you should take them to the vet as soon as possible to see if there’s anything you can do. Some causes of death are preventable, so your actions may save their life. Even if they are in their final steps of dying, your vet may advise you on how to make the process easier for you both.
How can you tell if your cat is dying?
Cats can die from many things, but kidney disease, cancer, and exposure to toxins are frequent causes of death. Always take your cat to the vet if they suddenly become lethargic, have vomiting or diarrhea that lasts for longer than a few hours, or have difficulty breathing. Some otherwise fatal cases can be resolved with prompt medical care. If your cat does take a turn for the worst, your vet will advise you whether euthanasia might be the best choice or give you an estimated time for how long they’d be expected to live at home.
How do I know if a cat is suffering?
Hiding or displaying unusual behaviors often signify your cat is in pain. However, that doesn’t always mean that they’re dying. Cats in their final life stages may no longer eat, drink, or go to their litter box.
Is my cat dying or just sick?
Your veterinarian can tell you what’s going on with your cat. Some curable illnesses mimic the symptoms of kidney disease and cancer, so it’s always advisable to take your cat to the vet as soon as possible to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment.